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 Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 5/13/2004

This is your bi-weekly e-Newsletter from Effective Engineering Consulting Services (www.effectiveeng.com).  If you would like to receive Effective Engineering e-newsletters as they are published, please send an email to e-newsletter@effectiveeng.com, and we will add you to our distribution list.  Comments and suggestions are welcome and encouraged!


Managing “Monkeys”
  By Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [tdennis@effectiveeng.com]

In my recent “Herding Cats” series of e-Newsletters on Engineer personality types (see eN-031106, eN-031120, eN-031204, eN-031218, eN-040108, and eN-040122), I discussed how engineers are different from other people and the challenges in “managing” them.  In my “Mis-Managers” series of e-Newsletters on Manager (or Mis-Manager) personality types (see eN-040205, eN-040219, eN-040304, eN-040318, eN-040401, eN-040415, eN-040429), I discussed how good managers can drive an organization forward to success, but how bad managers (Mis-Managers) can poison the well and destroy an organization’s effectiveness.  To be effective, engineers and managers must work well together, and responsibility and accountability must be allocated appropriately, with engineers and their managers each carrying out their respective roles.  Problems arise when responsibilities are shifted inappropriately from engineers to managers or vice-versa.

In their hallmark paper, “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” [1]. William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass raise the issue of subordinates inappropriately moving their problems (described as “Monkeys”) from their own backs onto their managers’ backs, and how managers accept them, albeit sometimes inadvertently.  I highly recommend this short and entertaining paper, and I plagiarize generously from it here.

Their premise is that time is precious, that it must be well managed, and that there are three kinds of management time: boss-imposed time (that a manager must attend to), system-imposed time (typically from peers, and also considered important), and self-imposed time (used to do what the manager originates or wants to do).  Within self-imposed time is discretionary time (the manager’s own time), and subordinate-imposed time  (that comes from interactions with subordinates). 

Every person walks around with monkeys on their backs, representing the problems and issues they have responsibility for.  When meeting with their boss, by means such as saying, “Boss, we’ve got a problem”, the subordinate enables his/her monkey to straddle both his/her and his boss’ backs.  If the boss then says, “Thanks for letting me know about this; let me think about it and get back to you”, the monkey has now been successfully transferred from the subordinate to the boss.  The subordinate walks away with one less monkey, and the boss walks away with one more on his/her back.  There are many other ways to get monkeys to jump from a subordinate’s back to the boss’ back.  If every subordinate transfers one or two monkeys to the boss, then the boss ends up carrying a huge load of other people’s monkeys, and has little time to carry out boss-imposed tasks or system-imposed tasks, much less to carry out self-imposed tasks.  Subordinate-imposed tasks can consume a boss’ time, and may leave subordinates with not enough to do.  Who’s working for whom?  This makes the boss ineffective (as he/she can’t handle all these monkeys), and may leave the subordinates unfulfilled, as they can’t move forward while they’re waiting for their boss to handle their monkeys.  It’s also bad for the boss’ boss and peers, as their problems are getting inadequate attention.  All around this is a distressing and unacceptable situation.

The solution is for the boss to get rid of subordinates’ monkeys by transferring the initiative back to them and keeping it there.  They can do this by recognizing some of the rules governing the “Care and Feeding of Monkeys”.  These rules include:

1.  Monkeys should be fed or shot.  Letting them starve to death will only waste more time on post-mortems or attempted resurrections.

2.  The monkey population should be kept below the maximum number the boss has time to feed.  It shouldn’t take more than 5-15 minutes to feed a properly maintained monkey.

3.  Monkeys should be fed by appointment only.  The boss shouldn’t have to hunt down starving monkeys to feed them on a catch-as-catch-can basis.

4.  Monkeys should be fed face-to-face or by telephone, not by mail or email.

5.  Every monkey should have an assigned next feeding time and degree of initiative, never a vague or indefinite time.  Otherwise, the monkey will either starve to death or wind up on the boss’ back.

By following these rules, the boss can enlarge his/her discretionary time by limiting subordinate-imposed time.  In doing so, the boss can and should then use a portion of this newfound discretionary time to see to it that each subordinate actually has the initiative and applies it (feeding the monkeys).  Further, the boss should use another portion of his/her increased discretionary time to get and keep control of the timing and content of both boss-imposed and system-imposed time.  All of these steps will increase the boss’ leverage and enable each hour spent in managing management time to multiply without theoretical limit.

For this to truly be effective, a good trusting relationship between the boss and his/her subordinates is essential, and those subordinates must feel and be empowered.  This takes hard work on the part of the boss, to establish true partnerships with his/her subordinates, to help them develop their skills and capabilities, to effectively delegate responsibilities, accountability, and decision making to them, and to back them up on their decision-making and execution.  When a boss and his/her subordinates work effectively together, following the “Monkey Management” rules, the resulting team performance can be nothing short of astounding.

[1] Title: “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?”, by Oncken Jr., William, Wass, Donald L., Covey, Stephen R., Harvard Business Review, 00178012, Nov/Dec99, Vol. 77, Issue 6.

Copyright © 2004 Effective Engineering Consulting Services

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